Former Mizzou guard Jordan Clarkson discovers ideal NBA role as Quin Snyder's sixth man in Utah

Dave Matter
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson, right, hugs head coach Quin Snyder during a game against Indians this season. Clarkson, the former Missouri player, is averaging 18.4 points a game this season and is the favorite for the NBA's sixth man award under Snyder, a former Mizzou coach.

To find his niche on the NBA floor, Jordan Clarkson had to find the bench.

The former Missouri guard, now in his seventh NBA season, is having his best NBA season. Clarkson, 28, will likely earn the league's sixth man of the year award and, possibly, another chance at an NBA championship. After playing alongside two NBA legends earlier in his career, Clarkson has discovered his ideal role under the watch of Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder. Yes, Mizzou fans, that Quin Snyder.

The Jazz finished the regular season with the league's best record, thanks in no small part to Clarkson's emergence as one of the league's most dynamic bench scorers. In Snyder, Clarkson has found a coach who's untapped his production by unleashing his talents.

"Quin has given him the freedom to be who he is," said former Mizzou assistant coach Tim Fuller, who remains close with Clarkson. "He's not a point guard. He's not a two-guard. He's Jordan Clarkson. He's a bucket. You got to let him be a bucket. When Jordan went to Cleveland with LeBron James, (his role) was 'stand in the corner and make 3s.' That's not him. He's a bucket. He has to dance with the ball. He has to wiggle."

Now it's time for the playoff wiggle. The Jazz earned the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They'll open the postseason Sunday against the No. 8 seed, as decided by Wednesday's and Friday's West play-in games.

"We know we've got bigger goals, not just trying to be the number one team in the NBA regular season," Clarkson said on a recent postgame Zoom. "We're trying to play big time in the playoffs and do something special."

No matter how the playoffs unfold for the Jazz, Clarkson has put together his finest NBA season as Snyder's super sub — and one of the most prolific NBA scoring seasons for a former Mizzou player. He's posted career-high averages for scoring (18.4 points per game), field goal attempts per game (15.8), free throw shooting (89.6%) and usage rate (29.7). He logged the highest PER (player efficiency rating) of his career (17.1) and the lowest turnover rate (9.2).

Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson, right, looks to pass as he is defended by Los Angeles Lakers guard Alex Caruso (4) in a game this season. Clarkson, the former Mizzou player, is thriving under former Mizzou coach Quin Snyder, averaging 18.4 points per game coming off the bench.

In NBA history, only two Mizzou players have averaged more points per game during a single season: Larry Drew (20.1) for the Kansas City Kings in 1982-83 and Michael Porter Jr. (19.0) this season for the Denver Nuggets.

"Not that he doesn't feel that he's just as good as anyone else in the league," Mike Clarkson, Jordan's father, said in a phone interview, "but to be comfortable enough with himself as a person to say, 'I can impact the game coming off the bench, just as I would if I was starting,' ... he's really flourished."

Not a five-star recruit

Clarkson spent two years at Mizzou but just one season on the floor for the Tigers in 2013-14. Back in the old days when transfers had to actually sit out a season before their eligibility restarted, Clarkson came to Columbia from the University of Tulsa as a skinny but gifted 6-foot-4 wing player who was relatively new to the sport. Clarkson didn't begin playing basketball seriously until ninth grade and instead focused on track and field training under his father in Texas. For a while, Clarkson's plan was to run track at Baylor, focusing on the 400 meters.

"The great thing about him was he wasn't a five-star (recruit)," Fuller said. "Mike Clarkson put an unbelievable plan together for him. As a youngster, he had him out there in the San Antonio sun running track and told him, 'You ain't playing basketball until I know you're really dedicated.'"

Once eligible at Mizzou, Clarkson was an instant hit, scoring 20 points or more in eight of the first dozen games, including a 31-point outburst against Southern Illinois Carbondale in his second game, after which Salukis coach Barry Hinson dubbed Clarkson "Ninja Blender."

But gradually Clarkson wore down. At the time MU coaches attributed his late-season struggles to his father's recent diagnosis of Stage 4 carcinoma. Mike, who has since undergone multiple surgeries at the Mayo Clinic, also believes his illness impacted his son's production.

"He was just an emotional butterfly flailing in the wind," Fuller said.

After the season, Clarkson entered the NBA draft and slipped to the second round, drafted by Washington at No. 46 overall, then shipped to the Lakers, a team of unproven supporting parts around Kobe Bryant. Clarkson spent half the season in the NBA's developmental league but joined the Lakers late in the year and made the All-Rookie Team. Less than two years after the Lakers signed him to a four-year $50 million extension, Cleveland traded for Clarkson to supply James with scoring help off the bench. Cleveland made the NBA Finals, but after Golden State swept the series, James left for the Lakers, leaving Clarkson in another rebuilding situation.

'Match made in heaven'

He'd soon find a lifeline in Utah. The Jazz traded for Clarkson a month into the 2019-20 season then last year doubled down on their investment, giving Clarkson a four-year $52 million contract.

In Snyder, Mizzou's coach from 1999-2006, Clarkson has a coach who allows him to play through miscues and streaky shooting. The 54-year-old Snyder might be the best thing that's happened to Clarkson's career. Mike Clarkson calls it "a match made in heaven."

"Jordan is mentally tough," Snyder told reporters on Zoom recently. "When you have a guy that believes in himself like that and has the confidence he has, I think he's able to really get to the next play when he misses a shot. He gives himself the chance to do that with his frame of mind. And he competes.

"I haven't been around a lot of guys like him and I love that I get to be around him."